Through the weeping household stalked a small black cat—just past kittenhood, and more gamine than gangly. She darted past the skirts of a grieving wife as the woman buried her face in a... [+]
Lightning splits the sky, and the rain whips sideways. Krae can’t distinguish between the thunder and the waves crashing against the nearby cliff and the ship rocks violently. Krae questions the wisdom of helping these outsiders find some hidden crevice that he knows for certain doesn’t exist.
The deck suddenly drops several feet out from under them. Krae and the others crash to the planks and start to slide, as the ship rides up another swell. Ruce curses his clunky chain armor as he struggles to stand. Marella, the reason for them being here, brushes her thick red hair out of the way and helps Gundren back to his feet.
“I’ll be damned before I lose my ship on these rocks!” the captain yells, leaning into the helm wheel. “We’re too close to the cliff!”
“Girl overboard!” a crewman yells.
Krae turns. Marella is no longer next to Gundren. A sailor in the rigging yells and points to the port side. Gundren jumps over the railing and into the water. There's no sign of either of them in the darkness.
As Ruce and Vaera join him at the port railing, Krae points. “Gundren jumped in there!”
Vaera sends a magical orange light orb into the water where he points and Ruce starts removing his sword and armor. Krae’s thoughts rival the jagged cliff and pelting rain for attention. “They call Marella their ‘compass’, but psychic or not, this is ludicrous.”
As the captain orders a crewman to stow the warrior’s gear in a large duffle bag, Krae passes a line through an iron ring, ties an anchor bend knot, and then tosses it overboard at the glowing section of water.
Vaera sends in a second light orb, aligning them between the cliff and the ship.
“There! Gundren!” Krae shouts.
With the pitching of the deck, the crew fights to tack the sails on the port side. Vaera moves her magical orbs closer to Gundren, as he takes a deep breath and disappears under the water.
Gundren dives deeper this time, pleased that one of Vaera's light orbs is following him into the darkness. He’s suddenly pulled deeper by the current, knocked against the sharp rocks, then tossed about like a clump of kelp. Bruised, disorientated, and running out of breath, Gundren has no choice but to abandon his search. Looking for any of Vaera’s orbs, the current again thrusts his head into the cliff wall, stunning him.
He stares down into the blurred, dark water, watching the last of his breath bubble out from his mouth. A peacefulness consumes him as minute lake particles dance along with him in the current’s ebb and flow. Without warning, his peace is disturbed by excruciating pain in his calf. Before he can turn to face his attacker, his world goes black.
Gundren feels himself being rolled onto a hard surface, then coughs out the water in his chest and gasps for air. His eyes struggle to focus and he sees luminescent moss and blurry shadows along a rock wall. He’s hurt and exhausted. He watches helplessly as, just inches from his face, long claws grab the edge of the ledge and take hold. An oily-haired grey-skinned creature leverages itself out of the water, then turns to stare at him with black hollow eyes. Gundren recognizes Marella and knows he’s safe. He passes into unconsciousness.
Krae, Ruce, and Vaera continue to scan the water’s surface in all directions.
“It’s been too long,” a crewman states.
Krae can see that Vaera is thinking the same thing. He knows she worries for Gundren, since Marella simply needs to turn undead to survive such elements. Her recent condition still leaves Krae unnerved, and he’s happy to have the thought tossed aside by the jostling of the boat and the captain yelling, “We can't stay here! We’ll be crab food if we get slammed into that cliff! Are two lives worth twenty?”
The sky and water are both dark. Sheets of rain and whipping wind make vision difficult. Vaera now has eight magic light orbs in and above the water, searching for any signs of Gundren or Marella.
As the captain gives orders to pull away, Vaera points at red hair afloat in the darkness. “Marella!”
Ruce is overboard. Krae throws out another line and shouts, “Where’s Gundren?” but his words are drowned out by the storm’s rage.
With help from the crew, Marella and Ruce are pulled onto the deck. Ruce is gasping for breath, but Marella seems fine. “Gundren is safe,” she says. “We found the entrance.”
“Entrance to what?” questions Krae, still unconvinced there’s anything but solid rock in this cliff.
Marella turns to Vaera. “Gundren needs assistance.”
Vaera looks across the raging waves at the cliff face. “How do I get to him?”
Marella points to the cliff under the waterline, adjusting her angle with every move of the ship. Vaera moves her magic light orbs above and below the water, around the location.
Vaera disrobes as Krae and Ruce tie two lines around both women. Vaera reaches for her bag of remedies, but Marella is quick to grab it first.
“It must remain dry,” says Vaera, casting a yellow energy bubble around it and Marella's hand.
Marella looks at Krae and then at the lines tied to her and Vaera's waists. “They’re not long enough.” Marella turns to Vaera, wipes the rain off the elf’s cheek, and says, “Trust me.”
Admiring their courage, Krae watches Marella and Vaera jump off the ship and disappear under the water. It's not until the lines at his feet start to rapidly uncoil that he realizes what Marella said. He frantically calls out, “More line!”
As the cutter pitches and rolls, Ruce rushes to hand Krae two coils of rope. Krae and a deckhand quickly tie the new lines to the old ends and let go just as the knots whip into the water.
After a few minutes, Krae and Ruce follow Marella and Vaera’s ropes and find themselves in a dank cave. They watch as Vaera tends to Gundren’s leg.
“He’ll be fine. He will need some rest, however.”
“Sorry, Gundren,” says Marella. “The current was too strong, and I had already turned to avoid drowning myself. I may have been a bit rough.” Marella inspects her soft, peach-colored arms and hands. She then looks at Gundren. “I don’t seem to consider all aspects of my actions when I’m dark. I act on instinct and not feelings. I didn’t intend to harm you.”
Gundren turns his head toward her voice, struggling to open his eyes. “It's all right, Marella.”
Krae investigates the large cave and stops to look down a dark passageway. “I take it that is where we are supposed to go?”
Marella shrugs, then starts exploring the cave as well.
Krae heads back to the others. Vaera fusses over Gundren’s dressings and Ruce sits outside a small circle he drew in the sand. He’s tossing pebbles into it.
Krae has set aside his rational decision-making to blindly follow Marella and the party to this cave, and he wants to feel better about leaving the city’s problems behind. He whispers, “Ruce, the other night there was reference to Marella as the compass. Just what does that mean?”
Ruce flicks a pebble into Krae’s chest. “We’re here, aren’t we?”
“Sure, but why?”
“Here is not there. Out there, all the other poor souls mull through a life that’s handed to them. Some are fortunate enough to find purpose; but even so, they usually end up alone and have no one to share it with,” Ruce says, with a pebble toss into the circle. “At least here, we have each other and kind of a code—even if we don’t completely understand the how and why. Marella brings people like us together.”
“Sounds like a paradox,” says Krae. “Did you find Marella or did she find you?”
“See?” notes Ruce. “Compass. She sees through all this nonsense. Try not to think about it, Krae...just be happy to be part of it.”
Krae forces a grin toward Ruce. He glances at the unconscious Gundren, Vaera’s caring touch, then watches Marella meticulously study her surroundings. He keeps his thoughts to himself, “Is this courage or foolhardiness?”